Sunday 22 April 2018

Furniture is forever

Repairing and upcycling anything from furniture to clothing to even paint, the skilled teams at Dublin's Rediscovery Centre add life to otherwise unwanted things

Gerard Griffin working in the carpentry workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Gerard Griffin working in the carpentry workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Noel Barbour and Robert Heary in the cycle workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Tools in the carpentry workshop at the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Lauren Murphy

If you didn't already know that the Rediscovery Centre was there, you'd easily drive past it - even despite the large red and white chimney (the third highest in Dublin after the Pigeon House chimneys, I'm proudly informed) that juts from its core. Yet tucked away just off the main road in Ballymun, a quiet revolution is slowly unfolding within its eco-friendly walls.

The building itself is repurposed, originally built in 1966 and known locally as The Boiler House, which serviced the Ballymun Flats with water and underfloor heating for decades. It was scheduled for demolition but saved in 2011; now, various teams are working together under its roof to do their bit for the 'circular economy' (a buzzword that essentially means keeping resources in use for as long as possible. In other words, extending the life of something beyond its 'original' use.)

"Our amazing CEO Sarah Miller worked endlessly to get a grant from the EU - over €3 million - and then handed that straight over to Dublin Corporation and said, 'Build us this'," explains Ger Griffin and Gráinne Lambert, who meet me at the door. "It was left as a skeleton, so all the metalwork you see is all original - but all the walls have been filled in with different eco building materials."

Through the centre's main door, you arrive into a bustling café serving up fresh coffee and tasty food; a place where locals and staff alike congregate for a breather throughout the day. To your right, however, is where the magic happens: walk down a long corridor and it's like peering into windows at the Wonka Factory. Here is the beating heart of the Rediscovery Centre, where various teams strive to recycle, upcycle, build, repair and create items - from furniture to clothing, to bicycles to paint - from already-existing material. In one room, individuals hunker over sewing machines and arrange fabric on mannequins; in another, mechanics in the busy bicycle workshop tinker with chains and gears, while a third workshop is a picture of tranquillity as various items of furniture are sanded, hammered, painted and polished. There's a dizzying volume of creativity taking place in close proximity - all in the name of sustainability.

Gerard Griffin working in the carpentry workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Gerard Griffin working in the carpentry workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Upstairs, in a corner of the large open space room that doubles as the Eco Store (where products made in the workshops are sold, alongside wares provided by other eco-friendly Irish companies) and as the educational centre (where schoolkids and adults alike come to learn about what the Rediscovery Centre do), I sit down with Ger Griffin, who is in charge of both the Rediscover Furniture and Rediscover Paint enterprises.

"The Rediscovery Centre grew, as a project, out of Ballymun Regeneration," he explains, adding that the non-profit centre is funded by various grants from both Irish and EU organisations and government bodies. "It's existed since 2006 and it has lived in various places in Ballymun - from the flats to the various workshops behind the shops and places like that. But this new centre, which opened in early 2017, is the first time we've actually been together under one roof."

The centre's ethos is one of a "creative space connecting people, ideas and resources". In layman's terms, says Griffin, this means providing connections. "There's the general connection with the public, because we provide services to them, of course. In my own case, I offer a furniture repair service - so people can drop their broken chairs in and we can repair them, refinish their tables, that kind of thing. There's also a connection with schools, as we go out and do workshops. And also, there's the connection between people that work here; a lot of them are on a community employment scheme and are picking up new skills every day."

Griffin himself has been involved in the Rediscovery Centre since 2010. "I had my own Furniture Restoration business for 29 years, and then decided to take a new direction," he nods, smiling. "It was about time to start being a bit more generous with what I'd learned over the years, and it was nice to go from working solo and being a lone wolf out in my workshop to working with a group of people. It's just life-enhancing. Everything has progressed really, really well."

Some of his and his charges' beautiful handiwork is on display within arm's length of where we're sitting - from colourful chairs to elaborate cabinets and more, all made from previously existing material and 'upcycled' in some way or another. The irony of the Rediscovery Centre being situated within a stone's throw of IKEA - the fast food version of furniture - is not lost on Griffin.

"But I can't diss IKEA either, because they have a very good recycling and reuse ethos," he laughs. "Although they create a lot and cover the market from 'cheap and cheerful' to more sustainable and better-created items, they also have a recovery department themselves, where they take in items and repair them and sell them on very cheaply. Actually, two of my staff, who worked and trained with me here, now work there in that element. It's fantastic for me to know that someone that I trained is out there doing good in the world."

Noel Barbour and Robert Heary in the cycle workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Noel Barbour and Robert Heary in the cycle workshop. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Education plays a crucial element in the centre's ethos. The Education team go out into communities and schools all over Ireland to spread the word on everything from basic recycling and its environmental impact to the benefits of the circular economy, as well as inviting groups in to see the progress they're making first-hand. "We get schools and visitors from all over the country. Last week, we had a tour group from Roscommon County Council; we've had people from Mayo, Cork... all over."

The centre also runs regular workshops and courses that are open to the public - from 'Introduction to Sewing & Creative Fashion Upcycling' to Parent & Child-based Arts & Crafts courses to 'Furniture Upcycling' - and then there is the aforementioned community employment schemes, which have equipped many locals with new skills. Two of them, 60-year-old Noel Barbour and 36-year-old Robert Heary, work in Rediscover Cycling where they build new bikes and hold off-site maintenance clinics in universities like DCU.

"I was a printer by trade, and the company went bang so I was out of work for three years," explains Barbour, who was offered the placement after his interest in cars and motorbikes was noted on his CV. "I was with TUS (a community work placement scheme providing short-term working opportunities for unemployed people) and a chap rang me one day and said, 'There's a position after coming up with the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun for a cycling mechanic - would you be interested?' So I did the interview three years ago and have been here ever since. We've done our City & Guilds Level 2, so we're qualified and that was a big thing in itself. You always hope that it'll somehow lead to a full-time job, but I'd sooner be doing this than sitting at home."

Heary has a similar story. "When I was seven, my brother helped me build and maintain my first bike - but I just kind of lost interest in it over the years," he nods. "But when Rediscovery Centre came along, it all came back to me. I love it. If they never closed, I'd never leave. I wasn't happy being out of work, but I'd gotten used to it. Now that I've got a taste of this kind of work, that's what I want to do."

The other enterprises - Rediscover Fashion and Rediscover Paint - have proved equally successful, with the centre running its own ethical fashion label (with some quirky one-off pieces on display in the store) and pioneering a paint recycling programme. Thought you couldn't recycle paint? Think again.

"Paint is very exciting, believe it or not," says Griffin, grinning. "And it's one of the projects here that has the greatest potential to grow, even on a nationwide scale. Paint costs the nation a fortune because it goes for incineration to Germany at €5 a litre. It's classified as 'hazardous', simply out of expediency - but it's not hazardous, it can be re-used. We have an arrangement with Fingal County Council, where we'll go out and inspect what donations they've taken in, take it back here, strain it, clean it and re-pot it. There's an EU drive at the moment to cut down on the amount of hazardous material that's going for incineration, so we're stepping into the breach just at the right time. We're the only company in Ireland who currently recycles and reuses paint, so it's a very exciting time on the paint project."

The Rediscovery Centre's growing profile comes at a fortuitous time, given their upcoming involvement in House 2018, the interiors event taking place at the RDS this May. Griffin himself will be giving a number of active demonstration workshops on the show's Inspiration Stage and inviting people to ask questions about furniture restoration and the Rediscovery Centre's message.

"We're delighted to be involved," he nods, smiling. "If there's one thing I want people to take from the House event, it's to give it a go. I want to show people that there are ways that you can do things and approach a project that is do-able. The novice has to start somewhere, and I want to show people how to do that. Maybe they'll get a grá for it and maybe it'll encourage people to be a bit more experimental; to look at things in a different way and not just immediately think, 'I'll just throw it away'."

His ultimate hope for the future, meanwhile, is that there that there will be many more Rediscovery Centres in Ireland and that Ballymun is just the beginning.

"Every major city should have a Rediscovery Centre," he says, nodding firmly. "It's just about getting the information out there. Certainly, we would like to see every large council area having a Rediscover Paint element, because that has the greatest potential to grow on a very practical level. I'm quite sure that there are other people out there who have equivalent skills to us, who can provide the same information that we do to the public. But it's crucial that the public engage with us; come in, do some courses, learn some new skills, have a look in the shop, open your mind to the possibilities. We're here for the public, after all - so they should use us."

House 2018 takes place at Dublin's RDS from May 25-27. Buy tickets at house-event.ie/tickets

Top upcycling tips

1. Preparation

Preparation is key. Wash your furniture with washing soda (can be purchased in any supermarket) to de-grease and clean the item; once it's dry, sand it to achieve a smooth and professional finish.

2. Sanding between paint coats

Pro tip for achieving a professional finish: also sand between the paint coats. As you add thin layers of paint, let it dry and then lightly sand it before you add the next layer. This helps prevent brush marks and paint drips for a full, even finish.

3. Sourcing materials

Make friends with your local charity shops and flea markets. Chat with the staff and stall holders, as they may have that item you've been searching for stashed away. With the low price tags, charity shops and flea markets offer a perfect solution to pick up some potential upcycling projects.

4. Enjoy it!

Finally, have fun and be bold. It's amazing the sense of achievement you will receive from creating a unique upcycled item for your home.

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